On your mark, get set, win: India hope to better the best
A good performance -- 100 medals or not -- will set them up nicely for the big test that awaits in Paris in less than a year
Athletes often speak of hope and pressure in a similar vein, and not without reason. Each top performance raises hopes for a better show, each better show consequently raising the bar. At the glittering send-off ceremony for the Asian Games-bound athletes last month, the promotional video -- played on loop in a hall brimming with athletes -- gloated about India set to cross the 100-medal barrier in Hangzhou. Among the most prominent participants in that clip was sports minister Anurag Thakur, who would later admit to feeling the pressure of 100 medals. He then proceeded to tell the media to exercise caution in their reportage, lest it would add pressure on the athletes. The irony was not lost on anyone.
And so, when 200 Indian athletes, led by men's hockey captain Harmanpreet Singh and women's boxing world champion Lovlina Borgohain, march out in Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium on Saturday in front of 80,000 people cheering from the stands -- among them Chinese President Xi Jinping -- they will carry hope for future and pressure for the present in varying proportions.
Over the past decade, a decent performance at the quadrennial Games has set the pace for the bigger challenges, and a direct correlation between medal hauls at the Commonwealth and Asian Games and the Olympics comes as no surprise.
Picture this. Back in 2010, India had 101 medals at the Commonwealth Games, 65 at the Asian Games, and six at the London Olympics that followed two years later. All three hauls were then India's best ever at the respective Games, with the CWG tally yet to be surpassed. In 2014, 64 medals came in CWG, 57 at the Incheon Asiad, and just two at the Rio Olympics. The anomaly was corrected in the next cycle when India bagged 66 medals at the 2018 CWG, a record 70 at the Jakarta and Palembang Asiad, and a best-ever seven at the Tokyo Games.
The world-class competition at the Asian Games in disciplines such as table tennis, badminton, swimming, wrestling, weightlifting, and shooting not only prepares the athletes for sterner tests, but gives a realistic understanding of where they truly stand in the global pecking order. A case in point is that of pistol shooter Manu Bhaker who broke on the scene as a teen prodigy at the 2018 CWG where she won a gold.
Bhaker tasted her first real failure at the Asiad -- held just four months later -- where she famously broke down and didn't speak to the waiting media. She would stumble again at the Olympics and has since lost her place in her pet 10m event. Mirabai Chanu, a world champion and a Tokyo silver medallist, is yet to leave a mark at the Asian Games where the competition can be as tough, if not tougher, than the Olympics. Neeraj Chopra's career, and rivalry with Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem, went into an overdrive following his stunning 88.06m throw in Jakarta. The message couldn't be clearer.
India have sent a 655-strong contingent for the Games, their biggest ever. While athletics, with 254 medals, remains the biggest draw, all eyes will also be on wrestling (59) and boxing (58), two sports that have served India well at the Olympics. The failure at Tokyo Olympics necessitated a close, hard look at the team, and in the churn that ensued, the likes of Saurabh Chaudhary, Apurvi Chandela, Anjum Moudgil, and Sanjeev Rajput fell by the wayside. The young squad will go to work on the first official competition day, with 10m air rifle world champion Rudrankksh Patil leading India's hopes.
"This is a young but experienced team, and is capable of bettering their 2018 haul of nine medals where we finished third overall. Get ready for a smashing first day, first show," national rifle coach Suma Shirur said.
For sports such as boxing, wrestling, and equestrian -- India had medalled in all three of them in 2018 -- the build-up has been far from ideal. While dissatisfied athletes dragged BFI and EFI to court in the lead-up to the Games, wrestling hogged headlines for matters completely unrelated to the mat.
It's of little wonder then that most medals, once again, are expected from the track and field events. Neeraj Chopra starts an undisputed favourite to retain his crown, although the elusive 90m throw may have to wait in what is Chopra's season-ending competition. The Olympic and world champion, who finished second at the Diamond League Finals with a modest effort of 83.80m in Eugene last week, will face tough competition from Pakistan's Nadeem whose lone competition this year is the World Championships where he finished second to Chopra.
Long jumpers Jeswin Aldrin and Murali Sreeshankar also begin as serious contenders, both having competed enough this season. Sreeshankar, smarting from a Worlds failure where he could not make the final, is hoping for a resounding comeback while Aldrin, who finished 11th among 12 finalists in Budapest, will also have a point to prove.
"Back in 2018, I was a young kid hoping to make a mark in the world. Five years on, I expect to win a medal, possibly a gold, in Hangzhou," Sreeshankar said. With esports and men's cricket making their Asian Games debut, it promises to be an interesting fortnight for Indian sports. The mood has been set by the men's volleyball team's wins over South Korea and Chinese Taipei, and it will be up to the rest to maintain the tempo. A good performance -- 100 medals or not -- will set them up nicely for the big test that awaits in Paris in less than a year.